Extra Edition / Business Management

Constant Improvement Works, Even With the Most Intangible Performance Issues

Bruce Tulgan

You can help your employees improve, even on the most intangible performance issues, if you start focusing intensely in your regular management conversations on spelling out concrete solutions.

If an employee is failing to meet quality standards, don’t tell her to stop missing details and ignoring specifications. Give her a checklist of every detail and specification she needs to get right. Talk it through in advance. Ask her to carry the checklist and check off each detail and specification as she completes them.

If an employee is too slow, set a realistic quota of tasks per hour or set realistic short-term deadlines within a clear timetable of benchmarks from beginning to the end. Suggest that he give himself a time limit to complete each task and stick to it.

If an employee is chatting too much at work, coach the employee on how to keep quiet and focus on the work all day.

What if an employee lacks passion or enthusiasm for the work? Well, involve that employee more deeply in the project and teach that employee new skills. It’s worth remembering that few people start out passionate or enthusiastic about anything. Most people need to do the job for a while before they feel some real enthusiasm for it. Also, it’s usually not what they are doing that makes them feel passionate, but rather how they are doing it. When people do something - anything - with purpose and precision, it is possible to unlock the joy in that work. It also helps when they do it with other people who care a lot about that work as well.

What if an employee is not disposed to take initiative at work? How do you help an employee with that kind of intangible problem? Well, you could provide that employee with an explicit list of “extra to-do items” to avoid downtime. Employees who lack initiative are often not sure what to do after they’ve completed their basic tasks. By providing them with extra to-do items, you are eliminating this uncertainty. You could explain that when their normal work is done, they should move on to these extra items.

What if an employee fails to take on enough responsibility, make tough decisions, or solve problems when they arise? Well, then you could work with that person very closely to develop decision/action tools. Talk through every circumstance you can foresee. For each one, provide very simple and clear marching orders to the employee: “If A happens, you do X. If B happens, you do Y. If C happens, you do Z,” and so on.

What if an employee does his job just fine, but doesn’t go the extra mile? Well, then you need to describe the big picture for that person. Explain to the employee exactly what going the extra mile really looks like and make sure this employee knows what’s in it for the employee: “If you go the extra mile today by doing A, B, C, D, E, F and G, then here’s what I can do for you.”


Do you have any direct-reports who are making too many errors in their work? List the direct-reports who apply. For each direct-report, exactly where is the error rate too high? Exactly where are the errors on each task or responsibility? This employee needs a checklist of requirements for that task/responsibility. In your next one-on-ones with these direct reports, use the checklist to focus on improving quality.

Publication date: 07/05/2010

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